Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Oldest Book from the Americas

The Dresden Codex

"The height of Maya civilization in what are now parts of Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lasted for most of the first millennium CE, and elements of Maya culture survived until the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century.

Among the greatest accomplishments of the Maya was the development of highly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems, both of which played an important role in their religious beliefs and practices." [source]
The Dresden Codex (named for the city where it is housed) is a fig bark paper manuscript in concertina style, produced around the beginning of the 13th century (a contentious point). The seventy-four pages are sewn together producing an eleven foot long document which was originally folded up between protective wooden covers bearing engraved jaguars. As the most complete of the few remaining Maya manuscripts, it is a comprehensive source for Maya calendar and astronomy systems and an aid to glyph interpretation in the wider iconography of the Maya culture.
"The Dresden Codex was written by eight different scribes using both sides. They all had their own particular writing style, glyphs and subject matter. [..] Its images were painted with extraordinary clarity using very fine brushes. The basic colors used from vegetable dyes for the codex were red, black and the so-called Mayan blue." [source]

11th century Mayan codex pictographs

Introduction - Invocation of the gods; preparation of prophecies
The Grand Deluge

Mayan codex - Tables for the Planet Jupiter

Tables for the Planet Jupiter
(another version of that page on the right can be seen at wikimedia)

Mayan codex - Table for the Planet Mars

Tables for the Planet Mars

Mayan codex - Serpent numbers; the columns of the universe; manifestations of the Rain God

Serpent numbers; the columns of the universe; manifestations of the Rain God

11th century Mayan codex Dresden - Rituals at the beginning of the New Year

Rituals at the beginning of the New Year

Mayan pictographs - Dresden Codex

Food offerings to the Rain God

Food offerings to the Rain God - Codex Dresden

Food offerings to the Rain God

Mayan codex - Food offerings to the Rain God

Food offerings to the Rain God

mayan codex - eclipse tables

Eclipse tables

Mayan codex Dresden - The Moon Goddess; illness and birth

The Moon Goddess; illness and birth

The Dresden codex is believed to be a copy of an original text that was composed between about 700 to 900 AD, prompting some historians to assert that it's the earliest known book from the Americas. The surviving copy may have been one of a number of pre-Columbian works sent to Europe by Hernán Cortés in 1519. It first surfaces in recorded history in 1739 when it was purchased from a private collection in Vienna by the (then) Royal Library of Dresden (now: Sächsische Landesbibliothek).

The manuscript has been published in various facsimile and reproduction formats beginning with Alexander von Humboldt's inclusion of a few codex pages in one of his books in the early 1800s. During the bombing of Dresden in WW2 the manuscript suffered water damage but it has since been restored. Although a couple of versions of the Dresden Codex have been online for some time, they are - as far as I can tell - interpretive reproductions or doctored photographic facsimiles and the image quality varies. So it's good to see that the Dresden Library last month uploaded (fairly) high resolution unaltered images of all the pages from the codex.

The dual-page and detail images below are from the 1933 Gates reproduction (of variable accuracy, so it is said) of the Dresden Codex. They came from a large MesoAmerican manuscript BitTorrent file downloaded ages ago (thanks Tia!) but I'm fairly certain they are actually extracted/compiled from the FAMSI site, as noted above.

dresden codex pictogram (1932 reproduction)

11th century Mayan codex reproduction

1932 reproduction of Mayan codex

Mayan pictograph

Mayan pictograph


Chris Kearin said...

Wonderful post. It's heartbreaking to think how many more Maya books we might have had if the Spaniards hadn't sysyematically destroyed them. said...

Read Bishop Diego de Landa Calderon's "Relacíon de las cosas de Yucatan" ... find the passge where he described how the people wailed and cried when he piled up the manuscripts and made a bonfire of them ... thank you very much Inquistion and Catholic Church...

Jimmy Mad said...

my heart said "wow"... no comments

Ben Gage said...

thanks for giving me lot's of studying....

Zacky said...

Thanx for the information....^^

Tom F. said...

Thanks for posting this. Dennis Tedlock writes about the Dresden Codex in his survey of surviving Maya literature:

Who knows how much was lost, but thank goodness for what is still accessible to us.

Sir Annonymous said...

It is important for cultures to learn histories such as this and have them realize the magnitude of what was lost in the recklessness of war, pillaging and any form of invasion. The past, confined as it is, in its deepest and most unsuspected corner across the time, defines the future as much what we do in the present.

The well being of things, not interests, is what we should pursue.

Thumbs up for the blogger.

moab said...

Could you please tell me what's the torrent to download the Gates version of the codex?
Thank you very much

peacay said...

Sorry Moab, I have no recollection. You can download individual page images (at least) from the Dresden site linked above : the download link is in the top right hand corner after loading each page from the codex as I recall.

MissAtoZ said...

It's interesting to me that the Dresden Codex is one of the only documents that the Maya today have to look to -- and it's in Dresden. Do you believe that it is better off for 'safe-keeping' and studying in Dresden? Or rather return it the rightful living culture to be kept in their museums? I'm not strongly opinionated either way but it is an interesting debate. I do no know the right answer.

peacay said...

Yeah, I suppose it's something on which you'd want to hear opinions from the Mexican govt and indigenous groups first I think. I, too, don't really have an opinion, but in the wider debate I've never been persuaded to accept 'curatorial expertise' or 'safe-keeping' as generic defences for foreign artefact retention(as, for instance, I believe the British Library raises willy nilly in response to original owner reclamation petitions).

Patrisha said...

Thanks for the sight of these. Wow - how easily different people destroy the treasures of others. I feel that similar sad destruction of ancient, ancient artefacts is happening in other parts of the world right now. As for "ownership" . . . I wish we could live in a world without barriers so that we could all visit and walk among treasures, arts, architecture an so-on, it would be great if the different cultures could be openly accessible rather than territorially debarred.

neeuqfonafamai said...

Wonderful pictures and information. Thanks for sharing. I hope you don't mind if I put a link through on my blog

Karma Correction said...

wow, that blew my mind. I shook my head to make sure it was real and a bunch of confetti fell out. wtf.

Patty Mooney said...

I have always been fascinated by Mayan culture and have had the opportunity to visit several ruins. The tyranny of Religion resulted in the loss of all those codices (chopping off nose to spite face?) But it's not an isolated case. It goes way back. All the works of Hypatia (born around 350 ce) of Alexandria, a brilliant female astronomist/ philosopher, mathematician and inventor were destroyed when the library where they were housed was pillaged. It really makes you wonder, Why???

The Ornamentalist said...

oh my god i love this blog!

Joy said...

It is precious and offensive that it is called the "Dresden Codex" when it should be called the "Mayan Codex" or such without the colonizing present name.

peacay said...

I know what you mean but it's standard nomenclature - the place it's housed gets the title. But it's only the title; it doesn't alter the intrinsic nature of the material.

amybradley said...

Extraordinary is probably putting it mildly here, these are books I think that will and should always be a part of us. Love these illustrations just so remarkable!

LukieG said...

Hello everyone, interesting debates, but I was fascinated with the idea of sending this codex back to Mayan lands. I live in the heart of what is left of the Mayan culture...where many Mayan descendents are trying to recuperate their past, and for now, I believe it's best to keep the codex where it is today. The day will come when those high priests and priestesses will request these ...of which there a three by the be returned to them. Until then, let Dresden keep this codex safe. It is important to note here in this discussion that the Mayan peoples are not integrated groups to the various governments which encompass their traditional lands, which include, southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. For this reason, the "governments" per say, should be kept out of this whole debate all together for now, since the numerous indigenous groups which call themselves numerous names, but all fall under the umbrella term "maya" are not, nor do they consider themselves part of the nation/states they find themselves in today....

LukieG said...

Oh yes, a beautiful site....thanks for the images....

peacay said...

LukieG thanks for your comment.

I'm not trying to be argumentative or play the devil's advoate, but I would have thought keeping the governments out of this debate is pie-in-the-sky thinking isn't it?

If a local museum is to be built or chosen among the various nations you listed, then it's going to be sponsored by and undoubtedly decided and supported by these governments. In a perfect world, the Maya groups would ultimately come together and prescribe the way forward, but in the real world, it's going to be a discussion between governments who will (hopefully) represent the indigenous peoples' views.

None of which, as you intimate, is likely in the very near future at any rate.


lauren said...

First of all thank you for your beautiful work. And.. the second codex page is labeled, Tables for the planet Jupiter. I went to save this to look at it later and it was going to auto save as, the Tables for Venus. Got me wondering....which one is it? And are you sure the others are correctly labeled? It may deserve a fifteen look. lol

peacay said...

Lauren, I have 2 things to say:
I don't know what a "fifteen look" means.


At this stage of proceedings, it will be just as fast for you to follow all the links and clues above to find out the answer in relation to the Jupiter tables. Because, of course, I don't know and will have to research in the same way I'm sure you can '- )

Norman Way said...

What does a "fifteen look" mean?

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